The Giallo and Pretty Little Liars

Friday, 27 June 2014

I'm going to make a bold statement here, the giallo is alive and well and is currently airing to over a million eager American teenagers every week. The show I'm talking about? Pretty Little Liars.

Pretty Little Liars is the story of four American teenagers; Spencer Hastings, Aria Montgomery, Hanna Marin and Emily Fields who all reside in the picturesque, wealthy Pennsylvanian town of Rosewood. One summer the group's leader and queen bee, Alison Di Laurentis, mysteriously disappears leaving the town and the girls wondering what exactly did happen to Ali? A year later the clique have lost touch and the mystery of Ali's disappearance remains. However, when Aria returns to Rosewood after a year abroad in Iceland with her family, the girls are reunited, asking the same question as before - what happened to Alison? Of course, Alison was not as well loved as people would lead you to believe. Before long the body of Alison is found and the girls begin receiving anonymous, threatening text messages simply signed  "A". A is determined to destroy the girls lives by revealing their secrets and getting them to play along with their twisted games. The show focuses around the mystery of who A is and what their motivations are for hurting the liars.

So why do I believe that Pretty Little Liars has plenty in common with the giallo? Well for one, it's a classic murder mystery that features plenty of red herrings, suspicious characters and shady motives. More importantly, the villain - A - dons the classic giallo killer disguise of black leather gloves - updating the look for the 21st century with a black hoodie rather than the classic 70s black trench. The majority of episodes end with a short sequence of someone donning black leather gloves doing something ominous which ties in with what happened in the episode or hints towards events in the next. These scenes are shot exactly like your typical giallo, often through A's perspective.

At first it seems like A is just a prankster wanting to scare the girls into telling secrets through the modern plague that is instant messaging. However, it quickly transpires that A means serious business, inflicting harm on the liars and killing those that come close to finding out A's true identity. So far A has been involved in digging up corpses, hitting people with cars, kidnapping psychiatrists, roaming around the halls of a mental hospital and sabotaging fashion shows. So far, so giallo.

A sabotaged fashion show, it's like every 80s giallo made!
But it's not just the character of A that links the show to the giallo genre. The locations used throughout the PLL universe would be right at home in the giallo world. A mysterious doll shop owned by an even more mysterious owner a la Kazanian and his book shop in Inferno, a train which a killer uses to stalk their prey, an empty high school where rock music is ominously blasted through the corridors, a mental asylum with an abandoned children's wing. These are all examples of some of the gialloesque settings in the show. The appearance of the town of Rosewood is partly based on the photographs of Gregory Crewdson creating a look that comes off as dark suburbia creating an uneasy feel to the home of the liars. This reminds me of how the giallo can use a space that seems safe and familiar but manipulate it to make the viewer feel uneasy. Also we have a scene in a lift, how giallo can you possibly get?

Being in a lift when shit goes down is never good...

The show also alludes to many of the themes of the giallo. Number 1 - Sexual Perversion. Yep, you heard me right, a show that's aimed at teenage girls airing on ABC Family is heavy on the sexual deviancy. A group of characters in the show called the N.A.T club used to film the girls regularly, obtaining videos of the 15 year olds in states of undress, sheesh. Furthermore, Aria has a sexual relationship with her 20 something teacher, Mrs Marin sleeps with a cop to stop him exposing her daughter's shoplifting, father's have affairs with girls half their age and countless men in Rosewood embark on relationships with teenage girls - in one case getting one pregnant at 15. Despite this show airing on a family network it does touch upon quite a few unsavoury relations and voyeurism which gives it a little bit of a psychosexual vibe on par with my favourite gialli. Quite impressive for a show that caters for the teen demographic.

Just giving my fiance's under age sister a back rub, no biggie

Theme number 2: Madness. One of our leading ladies - Spencer spends a spell at the local sanatorium, Hanna's bestie, Mona, is admitted to the very same place for an entire season and Spencer's boyfriend's Mum was locked up there too before offing herself (supposedly). Even the characters that aren't locked up in asylums exhibit questionable behaviour. Flashbacks of Alison reveal a person bordering on psychotic -normal people don't purposely blind their enemies. Other characters such as Jenna and Shauna are psychotic with revenge and even Emily's girlfriend Paige tried to drown her at one point. These people have serious issues. It's even pondered that main character, Aria, is A and has some sort of huge psychological disorder - many believe that the show alludes to Ms Montgomery having a split personality disorder. Mirrors are constantly used in the show to enforce the idea that every character has two sides.

Got a secret? Or a psychotic disorder?

If the show didn't have enough of the creep factor with the ominous A endings and the never ending voyeuristic prowlings of our villain, it adds on even more through the use of masks and other costumed deviants. A, or whoever else is stalking the girls that week often dons a mask of Alison's face and most recently has acquired one of Emily. This is probably more indicative of the slasher genre but of course that originated in the giallo with the masked individuals in films such as The Killer Reserved 9 Seats and Four Flies on Grey Velvet. 

Alison and Emily masks

A whole host of scary disguises, masks and costumes have been used throughout the show, used to terrorise the liars. I can attest to many of these being genuinely frightening. This really shows how much the show relies on the horror genre and its sub genres to create the fear factor. One character dubbed as red coat is always seen dashing away from the liars creating parallels with the British giallo "Don't Look Now" and it's red coated dwarf killer.

From top left clockwise; Gas Mask (the wounded soldier), the Queen of Hearts, Red Coat, Zombie Baby Doll Stalker, Black Veil/Widow

A whole other host of subtle incidents in the show allude to the giallo, it would take forever to go into detail but some are the fascination A has with dolls (Profondo Rosso), the use of a bird in finding a location (Bird with the Crystal Plumage), coded messages, secret lairs and unexpected dream sequences.

Yeah the show has its fair share of teenage goings on like relationship drama, friendship drama and family drama (DRAMA!) but it also has a healthy dose of horror and a touch of the surreal. The show has a subtlety, perhaps because it can't show explicit violence, that we just don't see a lot of in modern horror cinema. Perhaps this is why it's so successful in creating a rich, suspenseful atmosphere. I would highly recommend watching a bit of it or simply checking out some of the A stuff on YouTube. Pretty Little Liars is a great little show and is crammed full of horror references that elevates it above standard teenage fare and makes it highly watchable, whatever your age. 


  1. This article is so right on. I thought I was the only one who can see the Giallo references on "Pretty Little Liars." This show restored my faith in TV. PLL is not the usual stuff you see on TV, somehow it was able to deviate itself from its contemporaries by veering towards the Giallo genre. Nice one.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I'm glad you see it as well! It's so refreshing to see a show aimed at teenagers that's influenced by the horror genre. Would love to see them incorporate more giallo inspired elements into the show.

  2. I have a feeling that they would use more Giallo this season, especially now that -A is finally "revealed." :)

  3. BTW, since you mentioned Roeg's "Don't Look Now," PLL has an upcoming epi called... "Don't Look Now" (6x4)

    1. Wow, didn't know that! Would love it if the episode had some nods to the film. Here's hoping!


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